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How To: Protect Our Boys

By Sandra Clark

2015-1Christine is a writer and educator who works from home in a small, New England town. When she’s not working, you can find her cheering in the stands at the local baseball field. She is the mother of four boys who fill her life with love, laugher, and a lot of really gross stuff. She recently started blogging at boyscrytoo.com

When I was in college, I did an internship with a bunch of 5th graders at a children’s theater company. The director was not a friendly man. Having grown up in a family of girls, I wasn’t surprised to see a few of the girls in tears; but I was quite surprised when several of the boys broke down and started crying. Now that I have four sons of my own, I know this is not unusual; boys feel the same variety and depth of emotions girls do.

If we trust cultural messages about “real men” or the invulnerable personas some of the men and boys around us try to portray, we might mistakenly believe that at some point in their development boys naturally stop crying, getting scared or feeling hurt; but they don’t. These emotional stereotypes hurt our boys in the same way that body image stereotypes hurt our girls.

In her book, Masterminds and Wingmen, Rosalind Wiseman suggests boys have a limited number of options for responding to negative emotions within the parameters of the masculine stereotype:

  1. Tell themselves the problem doesn’t matter and then walk around feeling weak.
  2. Keep their emotions bottled up until they explode over something that looks small.
  3. Lash out at [or bully] someone who isn’t going to put up a fight.
  4. Use alcohol or drugs [or other addictions] to ignore or dull their feelings.

None of these options lead to improved emotional states and several of them could result in the active harm of others. The masculine stereotype is having catastrophic effects on the psychological well being of the boys who embrace it. Suicide rates are 4x as high for men as for women. By every measure addictions (alcohol, drugs, pornography, etc.) are higher in men than in women. By expecting boys to be independent with little or no need of support, society is pushing them to comfort themselves in unhealthy ways.

The good news is research has shown the most important thing we can give boys to resist the damaging messages they’re surrounded by is a close relationship with their mother. Here are a few things I’ve found help me stay close to my sons:

Play with them.

At some point, my boys all start shrugging off my snuggles, but that doesn’t mean they no longer want my affection. Every once in a while, I can still sneak in a hug, kiss or back rub, but one of the best ways I’ve found to continue showing affection is to play with them: tickle, tag and playful punches. My boys may get big and strong, but they still appreciate regular loving touches from their Mama even if the form of those touches changes shape a little.

Show interest in what matters to them.

So much of what my boys want to talk about when they’re young is B-O-R-I-N-G. I couldn’t care less about how they did on the last round of their video game, I really couldn’t. But to them, conquering that level might be the biggest challenge currently going on in their life. If I’m not interested in what matters to them when they’re young, why would they ever believe I’m interested in what matters to them when they’re older? To them, it’s all important.

Be ready when they want to talk.

Although conventional wisdom says otherwise, in my experience, boys talk A LOT. But, they don’t always want to answer my questions or talk immediately after school. Instead they most often want to talk when I’m ready to fall asleep, or when I’m in the middle of a good book. If I can set my plans aside when they’re ready, they will usually tell me everything I want to know, and more.

Trust their feelings.

Most mothers have noticed how babies can sense caregivers’ feelings. We also know children understand stereotypes and cultural expectations by the age of 5. Boys are much more emotionally observant than we give them credit for. When one of my boys tells me someone intentionally hurt him, I’ve found he feels better when I trust him and say, “that really stinks,” rather than, “I’m sure they didn’t mean to” or “You’re okay.” The first response validates and prompts him to share more while the other responses feels like I’m taking the other person’s side and prompt him to shut down.

Emotionally our boys want the same things our girls want: they want to be known, loved, understood and respected. If we can identify and change some of our mistaken assumptions, we can provide safer places for them to seek love and support so they can develop the emotional strength to withstand the damaging messages they’re surrounded by everyday.

How do you stay close to your sons?

About Sandra Clark

Sandra Clark Jergensen's writing (most often about food) has been published in Gastronomica, Apartment Therapy, The Exponent, and at Segullah, where she was once the Editor-in-Chief, and now as Features Editor. Sandra geeked out on food and writing as a master's student food studies at University of Texas, Arlington. She makes her home in California where she runs without shoes, foster parents, teaches cooking, develops recipes, and struggles to take pictures with her eyes open, and sometimes all at the same time. She is the owner and creator of thekitchennatural.com.

20 thoughts on “How To: Protect Our Boys”

  1. Christine, this is wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing with our community. I have two boys (age 5) and I am grateful for the reminder to forge that relationship of trust and communication now. I also appreciated your take on being mindful/careful of masculine stereotypes. I'm reading The Whole-Brain Child, a discussion about helping children use both the L and R hemisphere of their brains (which makes for healthier more compassionate children) by doing just what you said – connecting with them on an emotional level first ("that must have hurt" or "i'm so sorry") before trying to talk logistics with them and reason with them.

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  2. Thank you for this! I have four sons and I think they are wonderful. Your post has some great information and ways to help boys that I will be sharing. Thank you.

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  3. Thank you, Catherine! I get butterflies every time something I write is published so it was a treat to see this thoughtful comment. You are not the first person to recommend The Whole-Brain Child to me, I think I'm going to have to read it very soon!

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  4. With two tiny boys of my own I like reading what more experienced moms suggest on the matter of raising boys. Thank you.

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  5. So insightful, Christine. Thanks for sharing your brilliance. I wish I'd been better at caring about games as I have a son that loves them. We do have other areas of connection, but I think your observation about developing their trust by being interested in their hobbies is astute. Miss hearing your ideas in our old book group!

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  6. Great advice! Thank you. I appreciated the reminder to not expect my son to "man up." What a terrible phrase. I wonder if this is a contributing factor to why many grown men have an aversion to asking for a priesthood blessing.

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  7. I hope you don't mind my commenting – I was introduced to the article through LDS Living. I'd like to share a little bit different perspective from a male point of view. First, I'd like to say that your list of things to stay close to your sons is excellent. They really should apply to anyone in relationships, particularly those we are close to. I would add a few things here – giving them responsibilities with the full opportunity to fail, and if they do, correct the problem, not the boy so they have a chance to learn that criticism is not necessarily a personal attack. And of course, appropriate praise for the task completed (over praise may be more damaging than no praise).
    What I disagree with is the discussion of the drivers and underlying issues. I think there is a lot of correct information, but much of it is based on a feminine view of male-hood rather than a true understanding of males. It's kind of like a bunch of guys discussing women's behavior – we rarely get it.
    For example, there are other "options for responding to negative emotions." For example, learning that expressing negative emotion is not necessarily helpful nor solve the problem. I've read some of Rosalind Wiseman's work, and it's like she can't break free of her maternal view of men. She tends to fall of very obvious female-based stereotypes of men. My real concern is the over feminization of boys. They are dealing with it in school, in media and more and more in Church. Not only are boys supposed to be like men, but now they are expected to be like women, which isn't part of their wiring. The worst part is that this drive is pushing men to be the kind of man that has a more difficult time developing heterosexual relationships.
    I have to note you mention you have been part of the Boys Cry Too blog. The April 30 blog by christiwalk is the perfect example of my concern. Her premise is that men don't get behind her position because 1) We don't know how to feel, 2) We don't care about supporting those around us and 3) We are afraid to be weak. It's really pretty stereotypical and more than a little insulting. The most telling comment is that she admits she's "on a mission to help the male population." I might add – whether they want it or not.
    So, keep doing what you're doing with your sons. They will be much better young men for it. But I'd worry less about "cultural stereotyping" and show them love for who they are.

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  8. There is something that will help boys not mentioned here is a close relationship with their father. Boys look up to him and use his example in becoming like him. One of the most important things boys learn from their fathers is how their fathers interact with/love their mothers. Boys look up to their dads, when they have a close relationship with them, as their role models. Dads can cry and explain that it is ok to cry for example. Dads can also show by example how to use your emotion release constructively. Fathers approval of their actions/inactions, how to repent of their mistakes, and attitude toward women.

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  9. There are many more options for men to respond to negative emotions than those four. Frankly, that's a pathetic list. How about anylizing where they're coming from and trying to address that. How about praying about them. How about learning to control them or channel them appropriately. How about going out and serving someone. How about forgiving people that may have caused them, etc., etc. Then there's the good old fashioned 'man up' or 'cowboy up'. Sincerely and honestly, some of the most comforting and actually helpful words were when my father told me I needed to 'toughen up' and when I did I always felt better and was able to do more difficult things in life. And finally, one of the main roles of men is to protect their families (Family Proclamation). We're not doing our boys any favors by babying them along. It will never help them feel better about themselves. It's not in their nature.

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  10. Sandra, I worry that you have classified negative psychological or cultural responses as Masculine. Who said that crying isn't masculine? Jesus wept. Jesus cared and I can't think of anyone more masculine than Him. Don't forget he also drove the money changers out. Your article is great. And it is good for us to identify better responses for males but please don't identify these:
    Tell themselves the problem doesn’t matter and then walk around feeling weak.
    Keep their emotions bottled up until they explode over something that looks small.
    Lash out at [or bully] someone who isn’t going to put up a fight.
    Use alcohol or drugs [or other addictions] to ignore or dull their feelings. as Masculine. They're not.

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  11. Rick – I was going to comment on this article in much the same way you did but you said it much better then I could have. I never write comments but someone needed to post a man's view.

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  12. As a Nana to a 7 year old grandson, and a Mama to a 30 year old son, I understand the differences between my granddaughters, daughters, grandson and son. And though there are the obvious physical differences I'd have to say that none of them were ever 'pidgin holed' or followed societies' definition of gender. I feel that what you have come to understand about communicating with your son applies to any child, as in my experience every single one of my children and grandchildren have responded to my communication efforts in a various of ways that are defined by their individual personalities and differences. It is great advice for all scenarios of positive, nurturing communication. Very well said. ; )

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  13. You are right on par. Boys of all types want to feel connected to their family, to their peers, to something greater. Getting out of the "tough guy" culture is difficult, but I believe that with your recommendations there is a chance for much needed change.

    Keep up the great work! I look forward to reading your next post.

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  14. In my 30 years working with men and boys as a professional counselor, I find that men and boys both have a wide range of emotions. Giving our boys and the men in our lives the empathy they need is a gift. By empathy I mean sensing when someone has an emotion and attempting to imagine what life is like for that person in their world in that moment. As a woman I have never been a man. But I have felt angry, and hurt, and happy and excited. I use what I know of my own world to imagine what it might be like for someone else. I can never fully understand but I can extend empathy to the degree that I am able to imagine another's point of view. Thank you to the men who have lent their voices to this discussion. Helping men, women, boys, and girls regulate emotions within connected relationships is an important issue. Too many people are turning to drugs, alcohol, and suicide because they are unable to manage painful emotions. I agree that while we don't want to give our men the message that they have to be women, we do need to equip both our boys and our girls with the ability to recognize their emotions and manage them well. Empathy is a skill that enhances our capacity for human connection. Whether you're a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, the ability to live in connection with others makes life better.

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  15. Like you, I not only plplay with my boys, but I listen to (and try to remember) their "boring" conversations about their favorite games, tv shows, and relationship details. Their dad doesn't do that; he's so practical, and doesn't see the importance. But now that my boys are adults and high-schoolers, I'm the one to whom they tell EVERYTHING. I'm able to advise, commiserate, and rejoice with them as they make the practical, important choices in life. It's paid off, big time.

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  16. Lyle,

    I just want to point out that while Sandra posted this, she was not the author. Christine, a guest poster on the blog, authored the piece. Since she's not a regular Segullah contributor, Sandra was the one who posted. Just clarifying what may have been confusing above.

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  17. Spot on. As a mother of five boys, with only the two youngest (ages 16 and 18) still at home, I have had many heart-to-heart talks about their feelings — both sorrow and joy. In the long run though, it seems that their final decisions and behaviors are affected much more by the example my husband sets. Thankfully, he is a giving man who consistently treats others (especially me) with tenderness and respect. I do not have to worry about how my sons will treat their wives. I also know what it is to be a single mother and that there are so many women who are left to raise sons without the help of a trusted male example. No matter what the family dynamic, it is critical to maintain a close relationship with our children so that they will confide in us when they face challenges, and this article has some good suggestions for doing that.

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